Visotsky, thank you for my life!


“IF YOU want to understand Russia, you must listen to Vladimir Visotsky,” my Moscow friends told me. That was in 1980 as I began a Russian course at university. Visotsky, a poet and songwriter with a deep, hoarse voice, has often been called the “Bob Dylan of the Soviet Union”. As an East Berliner I soon began to see that the idealised image of “our great and glorious communist brothers” did not quite match real life in Moscow. Just as at home brave people such as artists, who dared to criticise the society around them, were monitored and often arrested by the Stasi, so they were here by the KGB. Whenever I visited my Moscow friends Eleg and Elita they played Visotzky songs and explained his lyrics to me. Of course they had the few records released by the state label “Melodia”. But most of the songs they played were secret recordings from live concerts which came on bootleg cassettes. I remember relatively opulent dinners at their flat, with lots of vodka, sovietskoje shampanskoje and endless discussions about bureaucracy, corruption, anti-Semitism, alcoholism, crime and the daily tribulations of Soviet life—subjects that Visotzky addressed in his songs. As Red Army veterans who had fought for a better world, Eleg and his brother-in-law Viktor (who shared the modest flat along with his wife) were clearly embarrassed by the status quo. I never saw Visotzky in the flesh. A month before I came to Moscow the man who was loved and worshipped as a voice of the people—and hated by the authorities for the same reason—died of a heart attack, aged 42.

more from Prospero at The Economist here.